By Andrew McGunagle
[Originally published on Shredded By Science]
While an overview of the mental considerations of strength training could go off in one hundred different directions, I’m going to focus on three points that, in my opinion, will impact your training and your results most directly and efficiently. Creating a mental model of the training process and gradually adopting a slew of habits that enable you to think the right things at the right times can dramatically enhance your results in the iron game. Here are a few pieces to the puzzle...
4) Focus: How you direct and organize your thoughts has a definite impact on your performance. Sure, you knew that - just think positive thoughts and quit fantasizing about that cute girl on the treadmill while you’re lifting, right? Well, science says we can do a bit better than that. Many studies have demonstrated improved performance outcomes when the participants were given an external focus rather than an internal one.
An external focus is usually a target in the environment. For example, rather than thinking about contracting your glutes and squeezing your hips to finish a deadlift, think about throwing your hips towards the wall in front of you or trying to hit the bar with your thighs. General terms that refer to movements rather than body parts or muscles work best - I often cue clients to drive down through the floor, push up towards the ceiling, or sit back and spread to the walls.
In addition to these beneficial external focal points, I have found it useful to organize and designate a few standardized cues for each complex movement. Everyone who I’ve taught to lift knows to think “tight, drive, pop” during the deadlift, “tight, spread, drive” during the squat, and “breath, pull, drive” during the bench press. Other cues will certainly be used to correct their positions and patterns, but we can always fall back on their basic cues if complexity causes confusion or if fatigue causes distress.
5) Grinding: Learning how to grind through a heavy lift or the final rep of a set without defaulting to poor positions or giving up on weights is an excellent skill to acquire in the pursuit of maximal strength. While there are certainly physiological factors that influence the execution of very low velocity lifts, I’ve found that practicing the proper mindset can make a tremendous difference.
Being able to grind through tough reps requires two things: an understanding of how slow you can move and still complete a lift, and the capacity to remain calm and continue to maintain your position and direct your strength when you’re moving slow. Lifters who primarily train using the submaximal effort method rarely encounter reps that aren’t fairly smooth and fast, and they often panic when the weights get heavy and the reps slow down. They often lapse into faulty positions during max attempts in order to complete the lift at a familiar pace rather than sticking with the pattern they’ve been practicing.
If you want to maximize the effectiveness of any high-intensity, nervous system-dominant training you do, then you’ll need to frame your mindset and practice brawling with slow reps. Get an idea of how slow you can move and still finish, predict where you might slow down the most, and commit to straining through your sticking point without rushing into a flawed position. This practice will be rewarded with heavier, cleaner lifts.
6) Momentum: I believe I first read about the concept of training momentum on Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training Systems website, and I’ve consistently returned to this idea to explain and examine the training process since then. While strength performance and training success will certainly ebb and flow, the sensation of building - and the practice of sustaining or rebuilding - momentum is, in my experience, the key to the entire training process.
Think about the instances where your training is really going great - success begets success, and you can feel every session, every meal, and every good night’s sleep moving you forward. Now, think about the tough times when your training sucks - you’re stressed, you miss sessions, you eat poorly and miss meals, and your sleep quality and quantity suffers. You gradually work yourself into a rut, and it takes time to get your body headed in the right direction again.
I’ve found that one of the best strategies for building momentum, keeping momentum, and preventing losses of momentum is the structured incorporation of novelty and challenge into the training process. Building strength demands a high degree of specificity and consistency, but this can be difficult to sustain both physiologically and psychologically. Therefore setting a date to shift your training focus, test your lifts, try cooking some new recipes, or just do something new, fun, and interesting can make it easier to continue moving towards your goals.
Thanks for reading - and be sure to check out Part 3!